Barack Obama has a purty mouth…sometimes, but not last Thursday

I have great respect for Obama’s speaking powers…but that speech was boring. There’s no shame in that, 95% of all political speeches are horrendously boring. They’re vapid and contentless, just like that speech was. See, no matter how pretty a speaker someone is, a good speech needs to impart some sort of new-ish information to the audience if it’s going to work. That’s why Barack’s 2004 speech was fun. Here we were all sitting around hating Bush and every idiot who’d voted for him,  and Obama stood up to talk about how our country should be united (albeit in a sort of generic, “era of good feelings” sort of way.)

This time, there was nothing new. There was no meat. We know that Obama thinks he’d be a better president than John McCain….hasn’t that been the entire point? And we know that the reason for that is because Barack Obama is a democrat and likes to do democrat-things, while McCain is a republican and likes to do republican-things. And because we’re democrats, we prefer democrat-things to republican-things. Got it. Didn’t need a 25 minute speech to outline that for me.

This speech was especially unfortunate because it brings to light, again, that Barack Obama really only has a very few rhetorical devices at his command. The man loves parallel construction, absolutely loves it. I think Obama must experience something very akin to sexual pleasure when he shows how two unlike things are similar by placing equal syntactical weight on them.

Examples for you:

“brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas”

“ordinary men and women – students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors”,

“Tell that to the proud auto workers at a Michigan plant who, after they found out it was closing, kept showing up every day and working as hard as ever, because they knew there were people who counted on the brakes that they made. Tell that to the military families who shoulder their burdens silently as they watch their loved ones leave for their third or fourth or fifth tour of duty”,

Because in the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather, who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton’s Army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill.

In the face of that young student who sleeps just three hours before working the night shift, I think about my mom, who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships.

And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman. She’s the one who taught me about hard work. She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she’s watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well.

Now, this is a powerful device, we get it…all the struggling people in America are just like members of your own family…wow! But after awhile, it becomes hard to listen to. Every single thing you say does not need to be echoed. Sometimes you can just let a statement stand on its own. But when-ever Barack Obama says something like “I care about the drowning pandas” I know it’s going to be followed up with “I care about the starving otters. I care about the thin-shelled eagle. I care about the oil-slicked seal.”

In the speech, this parallelism reached its most ridiculous apex every time he repeated “I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.” The phrase “sister’s keeper” has no meaning as an idiom in the english language. It is not equivalent to being your brother’s keeper. At best, it sounds tacked on. At worst, it kind of sounds like something a person would say if he was on trial for an honor-killing.

Closely related to this device is repetition. Barack Obama will often just plain say the same thing again, for emphasis. Again, that works sometimes. But when the words are empty, it just sounds like he’s trying to inject drama into a place where it doesn’t belong.

Examples:

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for…

What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose – our sense of higher purpose.

the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort. (see, we need to bridge divides…and unite. Got it)

They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest

It’s silly. It’s part of the reason why people think of Barack Obama as being a little bit elitist. Because it’s clear in all his speeches that he’s not really talking to you (singular), he’s talking to you (the adoring masses in the stadium and watching on television). I mean, at least he tries. But there are alot of other things he could be do. For instance, he could at least try being more conversational, on occassion.

Or, just once in awhile, he could use a metaphor. Read his speeches, Barack Obama never uses a figurative language. There are no “cities on the hill” and no one has any dreams in an Obama speech. There’s just alot of adjectives, and alot of very long lists of very non-specific things.

Or, Barack Obama could tell an anecdote. Now, I know you’re asking me what about that Indiana steel-worker who packed up his tools so they could ship them to the starving kids in China. That’s not an anecdote. A good anecdote is a story, it needs a punchline.

Barack Obama also tends to speak in archetypes. None of these steel-workers or struggling mothers have names or faces. And they’re just formless representatives of their groups. It might be nice if Barack Obama sprinkled some characters into his speeches, just to add some flash and flair.

But seriously…a metaphor here and there is not too much to ask if we’re going to be listening to him for eight years.

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